What is Cowley Road? Is it 'bustling, cheeky, vibrant', a glorious oasis of easy-going multi-culturalism or an area ill at ease with itself where you're constantly having to watch your back? Pigeons is Oxford author Martin Pevsner's attempt to get under the skin of this small but complex area through the stories of some of the people who live on it, in it and around it.
It opens with a stabbing. Moses, an East African asylum seeker, is knifed in broad daylight at the corner of James Street. He falls into the arms of Connie, a passer-by, and is soon receiving CPR from György, the Hungarian security guard from Sainsbury's.
How did these superficially very different people reach this point? Pevsner quickly rewinds the narrative, taking us back to Moses' early life in Kenya and the story of his harrowing flight from persecution. We hear, too, about Connie's journey from well-heeled Headington to life as one of East Oxford's street-drinking rough sleepers. There are also sketches of György and other Cowley Roaders whose lives influence or briefly touch those of the main protagonists.
The technique of assembling a novel from a collection of personal histories will be familiar to readers of some of Pevsner's earlier works, including A Still Life and Five-a-Side. I found Pigeons slightly uneven to begin with and the lists of street and shop names don't quite capture the liturgical quality of, say, a recitation of London tube stations. However, the narrative becomes stronger as the book progresses towards the crisis of the stabbing - and its very East Oxford aftermath.
I enjoy Pevsner's writing – he writes well, he writes about what he knows and his writing has a strongly visual, almost filmic, quality. If you know and love (or hate) the Cowley Road, Pigeons is an absorbing read – a good choice for your lunch break or the bus journey into work.